Even before Meryl Streep, playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, beat Viola Davis, in a performance as a Mississippi domestic even The Help‘s detractors couldn’t help admire, for Best Actress, it was a racially awkward night at the Oscars.
The off notes began when Billy Crystal resurrected his Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonation for a Midnight in Paris sketch at the beginning of the show. The bit is just fine, but on a night that featured Octavia Spencer and Davis as acting nominees for The Help, and Gabourey Sidibe reflecting on how few women like herself she sees on-screen, it was an unfortunate reminder of how few parts are available for actual African-American actors. It didn’t help when, later in the telecast, Crystal joked that after seeing The Help “I wanted to hug the first black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive.” It might have been a crack on white, wealthy Los Angeles residents, but the joke didn’t have quite enough self-awareness about the persistence of segregation.
That same unease showed up in an otherwise very funny sketch about Hollywood focus groups that featured a group of cranky moviegoers dissecting The Wizard of Oz. I don’t know that it was unintentional, but an attendee played by Fred Willard kept talking about how he’d love a movie with more monkeys in it—and suggested the upcoming Gone With the Wind would benefit from the same additions. It was an unfortunate choice, pairing up that particular animal with the movie for which Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award. As Chris Rock reminded us, “If you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.”
And the awkwardness wasn’t all black and white. Daniel Junge, who won an Academy Award for Feature Documentary for Saving Face, announced that as a white guy, he really ought to get out of the way for his Pakistani collaborator, journalist and documentarian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy—and then kept talking, though he did let her have the majority of the time. The biggest missed opportunity of the night was the Academy’s chance to recognize Demian Bichir’s marvelous performance as an undocumented immigrant in Chris Weitz’s A Better Life, a profoundly personal issue movie that went underwatched this year. I don’t begrudge Jean Dujardin his Best Actor win, but it’s much more interesting to confound the Academy’s preconceptions about the people who are still acting as the help than it is to cater to their nostalgic self-conception.